16 June 2024

humid nightblue fruit

    What did each do at the door of egress?
    Bloom set the candlestick on the floor. Stephen put the hat on his head.

    For what creature was the door of egress a door of ingress?
    For a cat.
     What spectacle confronted them when they, first the host, then the guest, emerged silently, doubly dark, from obscurity by a passage from the rere of the house into the penumbra of the garden?
    The heaventree of stars hung with humid nightblue fruit.

    With what meditations did Bloom accompany his demonstration to his companion of various constellations?
    Meditations of evolution increasingly vaster: of the moon invisible in incipent lunation, approaching perigee: of the infinite lattiginous scintillating uncondensed milky way, discernible by daylight by an observer placed at the lower end of a cylindrical vertical shaft 5000 ft deep sunk from the surface towards the centre of the earth: of Sirius (alpha in Canis Major) to lightyears (57,000,000,000,000 miles) distant and in volume 900 times the dimension of our planet: of Arcturus: of the precession of equinoxes: of Orion with belt and sextuple sun theta and nebula in which 100 of our solar systems could be contained: of moribund and of nascent new stars such as Nova in 1901: of our system plunging towards the constellation of Hercules: of the parallax or parallactic drift of socalled fixed stars, in reality evermoving from immeasurably, remote eons to infinitely remote futures in comparison with which the years, threescore and ten, of allotted human life formed a parenthesis of infinitesimal brevity.

    Were there obverse meditations of involution increasingly less vast?
    Of the eons of geological periods recorded in the stratifications of the earth: of the myriad minute entomological organic existences concealed in cavities of the earth, beneath removable stones, in hives and mounds, of microbes, germs, bacteria, bacilli, spermatozoa: of the incalculable trillions of billions of millions of imperceptible molecules contained by cohesion of molecular affinity in a single pinhead: of the universe of human serum constellated with red and white bodies, themselves universes of void space constellated with other bodies, each, in continuity, its universe of divisible component bodies of which each was again divisible in divisions of redivisible component bodies, dividends and divisors ever diminishing without actual division till, if the progress were carried far enough, nought nowhere was never reached.

Once again, Happy Bloomsday to my mountain flowers.

12 June 2024

Poem of the Week 2024/24


    The pigrush, the poverty grass,
The bindweed's stranglehold morning glories,
    The dog-blow and ninety joints –
They ask so little of us to start with,
    Just a crack in the asphalt,
Or a subway grate with an hour of weak light.
    One I know has put down roots
As far as a corpse is buried, its storage stem
    As big as my leg. That one's called
Man-under-ground. That one was my grudge.

    And suddenly now this small
Unlooked for joy. Where did it come from,
    With these pale shoots
And drooping lavender bell? Persistent
    Intruder, whether or not
I want you, you've hidden in the heart's
    Overworked subsoil. Hacked at
Or trampled on, may you divide and spread,
    Just as, all last night,
The wind scattered a milkweed across the sky.

– J D McClatchy

Anyone with a garden (or, less grandly & intentionally, a yard) is familiar with this phenomenon: the "weed" – the wild flower, the stubborn strange grasses, the volunteer, the bird-planted, the revenant – that prospers in place of the pampered & often expensive plants we labored to see in their place. Sometimes the results are better than what we intended; other times, the initial beauty deceives. A few years ago a wonderful plant sprang up all over my yard, with lacy green leaves & little cloudlets of white flowers (I assume it was some variant of wild carrot or Queen Anne's Lace; it had that kind of look). I was taken with it & decided to let it bloom wherever it was growing, which was all over. But then seed time came, & the plant turned on me: the seeds were sticky little burrs that got everywhere. When I walked through the yard, I would end up with them all over my arms (& in my arm pits), my hair, my yard gloves, my clothes, my shoes . . . everywhere. I brushed them off until I realized I was just spreading the seeds. The next year, I ruthlessly yanked up any of these plants I saw, even in their early beauty stages. I pulled them up by the dozens. A few still show up, of course, despite my dedicated efforts.

The poet here starts off with some really unattractive-sounding plants, their unwanted wildness contrasting with the regularity of his lines & stanzas. I may know some of these by other names (such is the nature of "weeds"), though I don't recognize most of these names, but then I'm sure they were chosen for sound & connotation: pigrush, poverty grass, bindweed, dog-blow (it's an interesting phenomenon that every dog-related term I can think of in English is an insult of some sort), ninety-joint: they sound mean, low-natured, gross or balky.

But then the mood changes a bit: they ask so little of us. It can be a relief not to have to deal with their needs. Is their self-sufficiency generous or indifferent or powerful or all of those and/or something else? Despite the unappealing names we stick on them, there seems something admirable in their tenacity & self-reliance & independence (& aren't those supposed to be great cultural virtues for Americans?).A crack in the asphalt, a subway grate: the plants aren't even interrupting the visualized flow of some ideal garden here; they're just trying to live (I remember a passage from a long-ago reading of Crime & Punishment, a description of how even the suffering will cling to life, even if they are stuck on a bare rocky ledge: still they cling to life). The poet tells of one weed that has sunk down as far as a corpse is buried: that's presumably a human corpse; the plant finds life amidst our death, & maybe even through our death. This plant's storage stem (a type of root that stores food & other nutrients) is as thick as the poet's leg. Things are getting personal! The comparisons to a man's leg & the vicinity of corpses & the name Man-under-ground & the storage stem all suggest that the plant's vitality is somehow feeding off of our (defunct) bodies. No wonder the poet has a grudge against it. It's doubtful that he managed to defeat it, though: a root that massive is difficult to remove completely, & unless you do that, that plant is returning.

The mood changes more significantly in the second stanza: the poet does not begin by describing the "weed", but by relating how he reacts to it: And suddenly now this small / unlooked for joy. It's not even clear at first that he is, in fact, describing a plant. The line break lends subtle emphasis to unlooked for. Joy is rare & fleeting enough in life, even small joys, so an unlooked-for one is welcome. After the emotion comes its cause: pale shoots / and drooping lavender bell. The plant is still an intruder, but not a fragile beauty, despite its paleness & drooping & pastel shade; it is persistent, not just in showing up where it wasn't planned for but in its insistence on its own existence & loveliness. Where did it come from? The it is emphasized with italics, bringing out the singularity of this particular weed. It refers to this plant, but perhaps also to the unexpected apparition of the plant's loveliness.

The poet is not completely won over (perhaps he's had an experience similar to mine with the lacy beauties): whether or not I want you. He's not ready to give up his plans for his garden, but he does admit the persistent intruder with pale shoots & a delicate bell-flower has worked its way into the heart's / overworked subsoil. Again, the body is linked to the world of nature as shown in the garden; the heart, seat of love, is compared to a garden (gardens are a traditional erotic image in many poetic traditions). And this weed has not just lodged there superficially; it is in the subsoil. The heart is cultivated, even overworked, but still receptive to the surprising bit of joy brought unexpectedly by an unlooked-for & unwanted discovery.

With that, the poet gives the plant his unnecessary blessing to bloom in his garden. Acknowledging the weed's likely future of being hacked at  / or trampled on (it is still an intruder, & hacking & trampling are how people treat weeds), he also wishes it to divide & spread, those two terms balancing the earlier two: dividing is a sort of hacking, a separation (it is also a deliberate process by which gardeners keep their plants healthy; here, it is the plant itself that is keeping itself healthy by division); spreading seems related to trampling: both expand the plant outwards, even if crushed. And most gardeners have had the experience of realizing they were carrying & spreading seeds stuck in the ridges of their work boots.

The poem so far has dealt with the ground, & what's underneath it; in the last two lines, it takes flight into the sky. First the way is prepared by the introduction of the metaphor: Just as, all last night. . . . Night prepares us for a dreamlike vision: The wind scattered a milkweed across the sky. On one level, this is a factual statement of the natural process by which some weeds are spread: the wind blows the light seeds through the air. But of course they aren't blown "across the sky"; they cover only a bit of territory, fairly low down in the atmosphere, before they fall to earth. What the phrasing gives us is a wonderful evocation of the seeds of this weed, the milkweed, as a kind of starry Milky Way spread & suspended dazzlingly overhead. The seeds of this unwanted plant become a generous celebration of the powerful glories of Nature itself.

The title is Weeds, not A Particular Weed I Happened to Like: the poet is suggesting, perhaps, a revised way of looking at the aesthetic imposition on & forcing of Nature that constitutes "a garden", into a broader acceptance of the strange byways & serendipitous discoveries of the living world.

I took this from Garden Poems, selected & edited by John Hollander, part of the excellent Everyman's Library Pocket Poets series.

10 June 2024

Museum Monday 2024/24


detail of The Descending Geese of the Koto Bridge (Kotoji no Rakugan), from the series Eight Parlor Views (Zashiki hakkei) by Suzuki Harunobu, currently on display at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco as part of their special exhibit Japanese Prints in Transition: From the Floating World to the Modern World

05 June 2024

Poem of the Week 2024/23

Upon Her Voice

Let but thy voice engender with the string,
And Angels will be borne, while thou dost sing.

– Robert Herrick

Length is an interesting phenomenon in poetry: often the long form, the epic, is rated the highest achievement of the art form, just as novels are often valued over short stories, but the lightning flash of a brief poem has its own art & its own fascination & power. Some poets naturally gravitate towards the brief (I can't imagine that any admirer of Emily Dickinson ever wished that she had attempted an epic). Herrick was one of those; his witty, sensuous, observational poems are mostly short & all the more memorable for it.

In this poem, two lines tell us all, though the title, which is sort of a line of its own, announces the subject (just as epics have a statement of subject & theme at the opening ("Arms & the man I sing"), so do briefer poems, if only to save time by pointing our minds in the right direction). The poet is speaking to a woman; she is not singing, but he hopes she will be; he must have heard her in the past, because he knows what delights to expect. There is a flirtatious undercurrent here, as he pleads with her to sing; it is not her voice alone, but her voice united with "the string" (a lute or violin or some such instrument) – not just united, but engendered. Engender means not only "to make people have a particular feeling or make a situation start to exist" – that is, her voice, united with an instrument, will create something new, something worth waiting for – but also to procreate, to beget – that is, art is generated by something akin to a sexual relationship, in which two procreators produce an independent, third, living being. (As Iago says, "My muse labors, & thus is she delivered".)

What sort of child is being produced? We find out in the second line: no squalling earthly babes, but angels. And not just one, but many; an abundance of heavenly messengers. Angels traditionally are shown hymning praise to God, often depicted in art with harps & other instruments. They also put us in mind of the music of the spheres that was supposed to result from the exquisite mathematical circling of the planets. The voice united with the string will remove us from this mundane reality to a higher existence.

And the angels are borne: the primary meaning of that word is carried (just as the sound vibrations we call music are carried to us through the air), but there is also the underlying pun, continuing the procreative theme, of given birth. The music floats, but is also rooted in our basic physical, as well as spiritual, urges.

Yet this glorious moment is as brief as this poem: it lasts only while thou dost sing (note the use of the intimate form thou; this word often strikes us as formal, because it is archaic, but it was once a living word in English, the equivalent of the intimate French tu). Given the sexual subtext to the poem, it's difficult not to see a glance here at the briefness of orgasm as well as the briefness of spiritual exaltation: a reminder that we are a complex mixture of the animal & the angelic. Herrick, perhaps most famous for the line Gather ye rosebuds while ye may, here pleads with an unidentified but crucial woman to produce, through the unlikely union of voice & string, a moment of earthly ecstasy.

Given the frequently saucy nature of Herrick's poetry, editions from the more decorous decades between his lifetime (he died in 1674) & the late twentieth century were frequently heavily edited & difficult to come by, so a complete edition of his poetry was one of the books I kept an eye out for. Oxford University Press published a wonderful two-volume set, but it's quite expensive. But several years ago, during yet another difficult period, on top of all my other difficulties, I had to help arrange a ridiculous offsite for a ridiculous group at my then job (which was also ridiculous). I vowed to myself that if I managed to make it through the week of the offsite without strangling one or more people, I would buy The Complete Poetry of Robert Herrick, edited by Tom T. Cain and Ruth Connolly, without even waiting for one of OUP's occasional sales. Reader, that carrot kept this donkey on track & out of jail. Buying expensive books of poetry: preventing violence for untold years!

29 May 2024

Poem of the Week 2024/22

When I consider how my light is spent,
Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide,
And that one Talent which is death to hide,
Lodg'd with me useless, though my Soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest he returning chide,
Doth God exact day-labor, light denied,
I fondly ask; But patience to prevent
That murmur, soon replies, "God doth not need
Either man's work or his own gifts, who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best; his State
Is Kingly. Thousands at his bidding speed
And post o'er Land and Ocean without rest;
They also serve who only stand and wait."

– John Milton

Milton of course is renowned for the epic sweep & sonorous majesty of his verse, but his sonnets are almost oddly powerful, like a contained but impressive granite monument. Here, in his famous sonnet on his blindness, he is also  unexpectedly intimate, dealing with a physical crisis that shades into a spiritual one.

Blindness, which came upon Milton as he worked to justify the English rebellion against the anointed King, is not only a terrifying condition for a poet, but a resonant one, as the mighty figure of the blind Homer casts a giant shadow over subsequent poets. Milton was immersed in the classical past & worked with & against it, but he probably would have preferred to have that ongoing agon take place outside his physical body, in the mental/spiritual worlds of poetry & philosophy.

Milton approaches the subject obliquely, referring to his light, rather than his eyesight. & that light is spent, meaning not just gone, but used & therefore unavailable for further use, like a burnt-out candle. He was actively using his sight, not just for literary work, but for political work. The difficulties of such work are immensely increased, of course, when you have to compose in your head & rely on an amanuensis. Light is traditionally associated with knowledge, not just worldly but spiritual: enlightenment. ("This then is the message which we have heard of him, and declare unto you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all": First Epistle of John, 1:5, King James translation). So the poet is cut off not only from his work in the world but, by implication, from his spiritual sustenance. Yet in this moment of despair (there is an echo here, I think, of Job) he does not curse, or turn away from God; he questions His ways. He considers his situation, reviewing it carefully, examining it from different angles.

The calamity struck him before "half his days" were run: I assume Milton is talking here rather generally about half of the traditional Biblical lifespan of threescore & ten years (70): in other words, he still has much to do in "this dark world and wide". The world is dark: mysterious, lacking enlightenment, cut off from the divine glow. The poet whose light is spent is stuck in a world lacking light, but instead of feeling at home, he feels cut off, isolated; wide suggests an uncertainty about which direction to take or where to turn in this world. (Much like Dante at the beginning of his Commedia, lost in a dark wood halfway through the journey of his life.)

The next lines are an extended play on the parable of the talents, found in Matthew 25: 14 - 30. With his usual verbal dexterity, Milton puns on talent, a unit of money used in the Bible, & talent, a skill or knack of doing a particular thing. Milton's talent, of course, is scholarship & writing, & he is unable to use them as he did, despite his zeal. There is genuine anguish here; it is death to hide this talent: he refers not only to the money given the servant in the parable, but to what he felt was his purpose for being in existence on earth. At the end of the parable, the "unprofitable servant" is cast "into outer darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth". Again, darkness is used as an indication of ignorance, suffering, & even damnation. Continuing the play on the parable, he wants to present his "true account", & this refers not only to the account book in the gospel story but to God's judgment on each soul when it dies (in Christian theology, the "four last things" are death, judgment, Heaven, & Hell).

This sonnet divides its fourteen lines in what is sometimes called the Italian or Spenserian mode: an octave & a sestet (as opposed to the English or Shakespearean sonnet, three quatrains & a concluding couplet). Line 7 concludes the extended play on the parable as well as the summary of the poet's tormenting situation: will God judge him for his failures to do his work, since God is also taking away his necessary tools? This question – Doth God exact day-labor, light denied – is usually, in modern editions, set apart with quotation marks, making it clear that the poet, the I of the next line, is the speaker. But when I pulled down my college copy of Milton's Complete Poems & Major Prose, I saw that I had crossed out the quotation marks, which surprised me, as I do not write in books, until I suddenly flashed on my professor instructing the class to do so. They are apparently not in the more lightly punctuated original printing, & they're not meant to be. With his customary flexibility of syntax, Milton initially suggests that this line is the "chiding" the returning Master gives his servant. It isn't until the end of the octave that we realize the speaker is, more likely, I the poet. There is a tendency in annotated editions to make the crooked straight &  the rough places plain in ways they weren't meant to be. Writers often want the ambiguity, the struggle to see what exactly is going on.

So the answer to the poet's question – why have I been struck in this terrible way, & what do I do now? – is already developing even before the sestet, in the amphibiously placed line that suggests God is the one chiding the poet by asking if he really thinks God will punish him for the troubles God has laid on him. And the poet asks the question fondly. Fond at this time primarily means foolish, though there is a suggestion of the current meaning, which centers on affection for someone or something. The poet himself feels that his question is foolish (who is he to question the mysterious ways of the Almighty?) but he has not turned away from God: there is that residual affection. & despite what we would now call the "power imbalance" between poet & Creator, the poet feels he can & should question the ways of the powerful, as in the stated epic purpose of Paradise Lost, which is to justify the ways of God to men, meaning not only to justify to men (humanity) God's ways, but to justify the ways God has treated men (humanity): that is, he feels free to call God to account for the state of humanity, & he feels God not only expects but requires this analysis from his rational creation.

The sestet provides whatever answer the poet is going to receive. The poet has murmured his question; murmur now implies something low, soft, & indistinct, but here it has a more Biblical resonance as grumbling or complaining. Patience – a quality of endurance, of withholding judgment on one's situation, of waiting to see what is in store – heads off the murmur by suggesting that God is not quite like the Master in Jesus's parable; God does not need anything from those he created or from the gifts he gave them. The poet's suffering & troubled confusion is, in the vast & empyreal vision of God, a mild yoke (another echo of Biblical language: "For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light", Matthew 11:30, King James translation).

In a phrase suggestive of the celestial armies of Paradise Lost, we are told of thousands who, at his bidding, rush without rest over the entire world, finding no obstacles in land or sea; they post, which suggests they are messengers or servants. There is a great sense of infinite movement & quickness here, part of the abundance of the Creator. Of course we feel we should also be rushing about. But, with a traditional Christian humility in the face of the unknowable ways of God, we are told that they are also serving him who simply wait to see what he gives them to do. There is a suggestion that they will be called on, at some point, to end their standing & their waiting. & though this attitude is rooted, as I mentioned, in a traditional Christian fear of the Lord, it is impossible to hear Milton's firm & magnificent final line without feeling a sense of power, strength, & determination, & even defiant pride, despite their official acceptance of Christian humility, in those who stand & wait.

I took this poem from John Milton: Complete Poems and Major Prose, edited by Merritt Hughes.

27 May 2024

Museum Monday 2024/22


detail of Statue of Bacchus with a Panther, from the 2021 special exhibit Last Supper in Pompeii: From the Table to the GraveLast Supper in Pompeii: From the Table to the Grave at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco